Movie Review: “Z for Zachariah”

Margot Robbie, Chris Pine,
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Craig Zobel

Director Craig Zobel’s last feature film, 2012’s “Compliance,” was more than a little divisive. Nobody dismissed the quality of the filmmaking or the convincing performances, but the focus was on the story itself, which left audiences asking, “Why would someone do this?” But that was the point. What pushes people to make questionable decisions, ones that they didn’t think they were capable of making? Zobel’s newest movie, “Z for Zachariah,” poses a similar question, amongst many others in this deceptively simple post-apocalyptic tale.

The film is set in a near-future dystopia where most of humanity is gone. One of the survivors, Ann (Margot Robbie), lives on her father’s farm, managing to get by. She lives a fairly simple, lonely life, but that all changes when she meets Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though the man of science’s views clash with her religious beliefs, they soon develop a deep bond – one that’s interrupted by the arrival of another survivor named Caleb (Chris Pine). As they spend time together, Ann becomes torn between the two men, but this story is about much more than a love triangle.

As a love triangle, though, it’s quite challenging and brutal. There’s a scene where Dr. Loomis catches Caleb and Ann in a small moment of intimacy, and the way Ejiofor silently reacts in this scene is painful to watch. “Z for Zachariah” is a film that often plays its cards close to its chest. The biblical subtext is clear – Caleb is the snake that enters the Garden of Eden and temps Ann to sin – but it never calls too much attention to itself. A conversation about science vs. religion is secondary to the lead characters’ struggles.

Even when the world is over, our baggage remains, which is essentially what “Z for Zachariah” is about. A woman choosing another man should be the least of someone’s problems amongst a post-apocalyptic world, right? These characters are still human, though, and have the same insecurities and feelings that they did before the world went to hell. After all, losing perhaps the last woman on Earth to love makes for some major emotional stakes, and those stakes feel major, especially in the heartbreaking third act. Just like in “Compliance,” Dr. Loomis starts making choices that, in his view, probably conflict with the man he sees himself as being.

Zobel sets this bleak story in a beautiful setting. While most post-apocalyptic films are typically drained of color – with the recent exception of “Mad Max: Fury Road” – Zobel and his DP Tim Orr paint a warm and tangible picture that’s full of life. The green valley is very green, and it’s refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic environment that isn’t dreary and rainy. This is a very inviting Garden of Eden – a place where one would want to start a new, brighter life.

All three performances are exceptional, particularly Robbie, who commands the screen, expressing such maturity and confidence as a performer. There’s a lot that goes unspoken with these characters, but the actors are able to get across their thoughts and feelings with as little as a look. Nissa Modi’s screenplay only says as much as it has to, trusting the mood and performances in the piece. With the exception of one twist that’s a little too telegraphed, this is a thoughtful and rewarding script that’s been translated beautifully. “Z for Zachariah” is another reason to keep a close eye on director Craig Zobel’s promising career.